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RESTAURANT REVIEW / EL ENCANTO : Beautiful Locale Isn't Matched by the Food and Service


It's a place where image is all there is. If the food--and the service--measured up to the location, the restaurant at Santa Barbara's El Encanto Hotel would be great.

Sadly, neither the food nor the service comes close.

In the hills above the city, looking down across the harbor and out to the islands, El Encanto is the loveliest of locations, aesthetically the ideal spot for a weekend getaway or a romantic dinner. In the evening, especially at sunset, it's the perfect place for a drink, whether on the terrace, framed by swaying eucalyptus, or inside. But the drinks can be iffy. The bar may put out a quality product one night, and not the next night.

Inside the restaurant, you'd think that the substance behind the image--of a quality hotel, in a hidden Southern California location--would be maintained.

The room is attractive, the views wonderful, the linen starched, the carpets soft and luxurious.

But that's all you get.

The appetizers are, shall we say, adequate. The chanterelle persillade ($6.25)--mushrooms sauteed with parsley and seasonings--is just all right. A mousseline of salmon in fillo dough ($6.50), with a tomato concassee sauce, is just this side of boring, with the salmon drier than it should be. A salad of hearts of romaine ($6) in a Caesar dressing is just another Caesar.

Why not try the bouillabaisse ($22)? The menu says this baby took first place at a 1992 bouillabaisse festival. I must not have been a judge. This one was heavy in overcooked fish, metallic flavors and had a dishwater-like texture.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it won the prize before El Encanto's new chef appeared on the scene. Philippe Berger, a French chef via Houston, has been running the kitchen since November. I hate to blame all of this on him. But who else is there?

I don't think he's responsible for the service, however. I've been searching for a word to describe it. Lackadaisical will do it. Sometimes it's there, sometimes it's not.

With the fricassee of Santa Barbara prawns ($20), the kitchen does succeed in not overcooking the shrimp, but the sauce is an undistinguished one and the grilled vegetables and rice on the side are no better.

If you don't want to drive immediately after enjoying drinks on the beautiful terrace--where you can also eat--there may be a possibility. Try El Encanto pasta ($19.50). Oddly enough, considering the state of the bouillabaisse, this seafood dish, served in a lobster sauce with green and white fettuccine, came out beautifully. The fish is not cooked to death, the shellfish is firm and fresh, the sauce creamy and tasty.

But do avoid the sauteed pork tenderloin ($18.50), which arrives dry, not infrequently cold and flavorless. Then there's the garlic mashed potatoes on the side. The potatoes, I think, could be really good, but they'd be a lot better, on any of these plates, if they were warm.

Desserts? I'm glad you asked.

When it comes to desserts, I can't help but think of the Japanese restaurants in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. You know, where the windows hold plastic models of the food. But at least in Little Tokyo, you can walk in, order the food, and get the real thing.

Not at El Encanto. One evening, on the way into dinner, I'd been attracted by what appeared to be chocolate truffle cake, a whole one, sitting on the dessert table which you pass as you walk in. I ordered the cake when it was time for dessert. None available, I was told. I looked around. The room had been empty most of the evening. Was the kitchen crew eating my cake? No, I was told, "it's not real. We just put it there for display. We don't have any to serve."

Which just about sums up the restaurant at El Encanto. Outside, on the terrace, what you see is what you get--great view, gorgeous setting. Inside, it's all image.


El Encanto Hotel and Garden Villas, 1900 Lausen Road, Santa Barbara, 687-5000. Open Monday through Saturday 7 to 11 a.m., 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m.; Sunday 7 to 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 6 to 9 p.m. Full bar, major credit cards accepted, reservations accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$80.

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